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Fire Cracker

Fire Cracker

by Shirley Kennett

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PJ Gray plays a high-stakes game of computer cat-and-mouse—with a man who doesn’t exist
Someone has hacked into the St. Louis Hospital, and not merely to steal information. The hacker alters patient results and drug dosages in the hospital’s computer network, with fatal consequences. Who better for the police to have on the case than PJ Gray, psychologist and master of forensic computer simulation? As Gray gets to work with her old-school partner Leo Schultz, the pair discover the killer’s trail to be far more opaque than usual: They’re chasing someone who’s successfully manufactured his own death. When they start to untangle his plot, they become part of it, as the brilliant murderer puts Gray to the toughest test she’s ever faced.  An outstanding follow-up to Gray Matter, and featuring a techno-hunt worthy of Patricia Cornwell, Fire Cracker sizzles with suspense.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781453286838
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 10/30/2012
Series: The PJ Gray Series , #2
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 312
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Shirley Kennett is the author of the PJ Gray series of thrillers, which center on a psychologist and single mother who deploys virtual reality technology to solve homicides for the St. Louis Police Department. The novels in the series include Gray Matter, Fire Cracker, Chameleon, Act of Betrayal, and Time of Death. She is also the author of Burning Rose, a stand-alone environmental mystery. Under the pseudonym Dakota Banks, Kennett wrote the Mortal Path series of supernatural thrillers. She lives in Missouri.  

Read an Excerpt

Fire Cracker

Book Two of the PJ Gray Series

By Shirley Kennett


Copyright © 2014 Shirley Kennett
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-8683-8


WILL CARPENTER SAT UP in bed. He knew he was screaming more from the shape of his mouth than from hearing the sound. Then he heard it: that high, childish wail that wavered between terror and anger, issuing from someplace inside him that never made itself known in the daylight.

He was drenched with sweat, and more than sweat. His bladder had emptied, and his palms were slick with blood. His clenched fists had forced his fingernails into the fleshy mounds just below his thumbs.

Will sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. He rubbed his hands together until the heat of the friction dried the blood, then ran his hands up and down his arms, peeling away the shreds of the nightmare that clung to him like leeches. His wet underwear, the only clothing he wore, was clammy against his skin. He stood, steadying himself by leaning the side of one leg against the bed, and stripped it off. Then he pulled the sheets and mattress pad from the bed and jammed them into the small stacked washer/dryer that stood in a corner of his kitchen. He fretted over the fact that he should have dumped the laundry detergent into the tub first and briefly considered pulling the cold mass of bedding out to do so. Then he wrinkled his nose, not at the smell, but at the thought of touching the cold material. It was amazing how hot urine came out but how fast it cooled off. Opening the detergent box, he saw that he had misplaced the scoop. Again. Sighing, he dumped some of the bluish powder on top, closed the lid, and started the water running.

Hot wash, warm rinse.

Mom Elly would be proud of her only stepson, sorting the whites like a pro.

Naked, Will wandered over to the sink and scrubbed his hands. Then he pulled out a coffee mug that looked less used than the others and ran water into it. He put the mug into the microwave to make some instant coffee. The apartment smelled like grilled cheese sandwiches, which he had fixed for dinner. He had noticed before that his place must have poor air circulation, because the smell of one meal lingered until it was overlaid by the next. While waiting for the bing of the microwave, he lifted the oversize terry cloth robe from the hook on the back of the bathroom door and wrapped himself in it. It felt good against his skin, but scratchy because he had run out of fabric softener.

Belting the robe about his thin waist, he simultaneously donned his professional demeanor, leaving behind the messy ineptitude, the misplaced laundry scoops, and the gangly body which had never outgrown teenage awkwardness. He was ready to flex his fingers and astonish the world.

Will "Cracker" Carpenter had gotten his start years ago in highway robbery—the Information Highway, that is. Now he earned more than most mid-level drug dealers by compiling confidential profiles for a price.

Cracker took his mug of instant coffee to the spare bedroom of his two-bedroom ground-floor apartment in University City, a suburb of St. Louis that housed a lot of Washington University students and staff. Some of the profs lived there, too. Cracker drove by their stolid two- or three-storied, ivy-covered homes on his way to the grocery store or deli. His own place was considerably humbler: a remodeled brick cube with one apartment up and one down. The upstairs apartment had an exterior stairway and entrance. The tenant was a quiet, serious Asian graduate student, a woman whom he hardly ever saw.

Cracker's apartment had none of the charming features of other homes in the area, such as leaded-glass windows, fireplaces, architectural details like columns and arches in the interiors, and fine wood trim. These things were generally prized even in those homes given over to student housing. His building had been gutted by a contractor who sold everything to a salvage warehouse and reshaped the home into two functional apartments, breaking the home's spirit as well as its grand curved staircase.

Cracker owned the building now, and he liked it the way it was.

The bedroom he entered was illuminated only by the portion of moonlight that escaped the grasp of the tree limbs outside the window, but it pulsed with electronic life. Yellow-green and red dots glowed, the power indicators and status lights of computer equipment floating in the darkness like lightning bugs. The glassy stares of half a dozen monitors reflected the pinpoints, tossing them back and forth across the room. Cracker never used screen-saver programs that would brighten his idle monitors with playful spirals or kittens cavorting on the screen. It seemed undignified. He preferred to let the screens go black when they timed out from lack of activity.

Soft whirring noises from cooling fans and spinning platters inside hard drives seemed louder now, in the middle of the night, than during the daytime. A clock atop a black metal bookcase read 3:12 in three-inch red numbers that reflected in the smooth surface, distorted and foreshortened there as though they were shining up through water. In one corner, one of the several modems in the room was in a programmed search mode, trolling through a promising list of phone numbers Cracker had recently purchased. Red, green, and yellow lights flashed as it silently dialed one number after another, marking those which not only responded with a modem on the other end, but which required a password or other security measure to complete the connection. Over the next few days, Cracker would check out the new hits to see if there were any worth adding to his toolbox.

He stood for a moment, thinking that the same lights bouncing among the monitors in the room were also bouncing from the smooth, moist surface of his eyes.

If someone was watching, he thought, I would seem like another piece of equipment: eyes like tiny monitors, lungs for a cooling fan, brain for logic and memory, a digestive system for a power supply.

It was a pleasant thought, and it dispelled the last of the nightmare jitters. He walked into the room, automatically steering himself around the rolling chairs, and switched on the desk lamp. The lamp was an industrial model, with a head holding two eighteen-inch fluorescent tubes on the end of an extension arm that flexed in three places. The whole thing was weighted down with a circular black base that could probably have held a patio umbrella in a stiff wind. The starter buzzed loudly when Cracker pressed and held the yellow rocker switch. He released it when both bulbs glowed, and the buzz diminished to a hum just at the edge of his awareness.

There were folding tables set up along three of the walls, and every inch of their mismatched surface space was occupied by keyboards, mice, monitors, external hard drives, printers, speakers, CD-ROM drives, a scanner, and cables and cords tangled like electronic spaghetti. There was a battered metal desk in the center of the room which held, in addition to the formidable lamp, the few business necessities that Cracker committed to paper.

To visitors, were any to be allowed into this room, it would look like techno-chaos. To the young man who earned his nickname by breaking into supposedly secure computer systems, it was comfortingly familiar.

Cracker sat in an armless chair and rolled up to one of the computers. He dialed in to Wood Memorial Hospital and put in a request for callback. The hospital's computer security system intercepted his call and quickly disconnected him. He waited while the system checked the phone number, name, and password on file, and called him back. When the password he entered a second time was verified, he was in.

He immediately exited the front end processor that presented user-friendly menus and got into the underlying operating system. Ordinarily, that was off-limits to dial-in users, but Cracker wasn't the typical dial-in user. Once there, he checked the volume of transactions going on and the number of terminals in use, and decided that his own activity wouldn't look conspicuous. At least, the risk was small, and he was awake and drinking coffee, smelling grilled cheese and thinking about fixing a couple more, and sitting in his clean white bathrobe, ready to work.

Going back to the user menus, he checked the census for nursing station 3-PT. Room 3PT-3302, one of the eight private rooms on the nursing station, still held the object of his interest: Rowena Clark, a seventy-nine-year-old woman with emphysema and congestive heart failure. Cracker had been following Rowena's case since admission. She was on a respirator, and her condition was deteriorating. He had snooped into enough cases similar to hers to know that she would probably be dead soon.

He knew from the nursing notes that Rowena was domineering and unpleasant with her visitors, but she was compliant, almost sweet, with the "angels" who took care of her in the hospital. She wouldn't question a confident resp tech who told her that she was getting better and assured her that it was time to cut back on the oxygen and the positive pressure that was helping her to exhale. Rowena would be told that she would have to start doing some of the work of breathing on her own. She probably wouldn't press the nurse call button afterward, not wanting to be a nuisance as she lay gasping in her private room, struggling with damaged lungs and weakened heart to get enough oxygen to her brain. She would try to reach for the call button at the end, but by then her vision would be going black, just like the resting monitors in the room with Cracker.

Her reach would fall short.

Rowena would die in just a little over eight hours, he estimated, not knowing who had murdered her or why, perhaps not even realizing that she had been murdered.

He dropped back to the operating system level and activated the special program he had devised called the Time Bomb. It would cycle patiently in the computer's background processing, sampling conditions periodically, like a snake using its tongue to sense its surroundings. When the preset time arrived, the program would come to life, creating a respiratory therapy order and then walking through Rowena's on-line record like a malevolent cyberghost, altering lab results, vitals, and observations so that her overall picture would be consistent with the order to wean her from the respirator. If her file did not present a consistent view, the respiratory therapy tech would question the order. In fact, there was still a possibility that the tech, upon actually seeing Rowena, would decide to delay and consult with the physician. The tech might even check the manual hard copy file that was kept at the nursing station. Or someone could check on Rowena in person and discover her condition before she had time to die. There wasn't much he could do about that; some factors were out of his control. Although he could make computers dance to the tune in his head, he couldn't always do the same with people.

In a few hours, if everything went well and Rowena Clark breathed her last, the Time Bomb would remove all traces of its work, including itself. It would put her on-line file back in order so that it matched the manual medical record, with one exception. Cracker wanted to leave the computerized respiratory therapy order intact, hanging inexplicably at the end of Rowena Clark's file like a maple leaf found growing among the needles of a pine tree.

He sat back in his chair and relished the moment. After years of planning, he was finally doing it. Striking back at Mom Elly. Not killing her the way she had killed Dad, the wet agony of it sharp in his mind, but striking out indirectly, and in his own fashion.

Having made his transition smoothly from hacker-for-hire to murderer, Cracker signed off and quickly slipped into dreamless sleep on a blanket thrown over his bare mattress.


PENELOPE JENNIFER GRAY, PH.D., Clinical Psychology, and head of the Computerized Homicide Investigations Project of the St. Louis Police Department, fidgeted in her metal folding chair. The room was not air-conditioned, and the late-evening sun slanted through the tall windows with unexpected vigor for the middle of September. The high ceilings trapped the unseasonable heat of the day, making it feel like she was in a greenhouse. The other warm bodies in the room added to the discomfort, exhaling hot gases that PJ imagined she could actually see, like the trails of comets.

She had worn a classic blue dress and a gold necklace today specifically to make a good impression at this meeting. Now she looked and felt rumpled. She hadn't noticed until she was introducing herself before the meeting that there was a small stain on the front of her dress, marking the point of her pubic triangle. The low-heeled black pumps that seemed like such a good idea this morning lay askew beneath her chair. Her chestnut hair that was supposed to turn under and gracefully brush her shoulders had flipped up instead, making her look like a fifties housewife except that the top of her hair was frizzy rather than pouffed.

The meeting was nearly over, and, except for asking one question about the building's security, she hadn't made much of a contribution. Illogically, she felt that all eyes were on her, and some feminine equivalent to the family jewels was on the line. Reluctantly, she raised her hand.

"I'll bring the cupcakes for the Halloween party," she said. "How many dozen would that be?"

It was Back to School Night. PJ's twelve-year-old son Thomas was two weeks into seventh grade. Tonight there had been a general discussion for all parents of seventh graders about expectations for the year. The brief introduction had been held in what used to be called the school library and had been rechristened the media center, which thankfully was air-conditioned. Then the group had split, with parents following their child's homeroom teacher to one of the classrooms. Mrs. Cartwright, Thomas's teacher, was a woman who managed to convey warmth and caring along with firmness and poise. PJ realized first that she liked and then that she envied the woman, partly because Mrs. Cartwright looked fresh and perky, and not like a person who had spent her day coping with a roomful of twelve-year-olds. Most likely, Mister Cartwright was the type who said, "Go ahead, dear, take a hot bath while I fix dinner. I've already drawn the water. By the way, is gardenia oil still your favorite bath moisturizer?"

Then the discussion got down to the nuts and bolts of who was going to volunteer for what. The organized parents, the ones who were expecting exactly this sort of thing, came prepared to sign up for sending in beans to plant for science projects, a box of disks for the computer lab, or a bag of cotton balls to glue to the world map on top of those countries for which cotton was a main crop. Easy to carry, easy to acquire. As Mrs. Cartwright went relentlessly down her list, the early volunteers sat back smugly. They knew what was coming.

"Six?" PJ said. "Six dozen cupcakes decorated with pumpkins?"

"Seventh-graders are big eaters, Dr. Gray," Mrs. Cartwright intoned as she wrote PJ's name in her notebook. "We avoid the sinister side of Halloween, so no witches, ghosts, black cats, anything associated with the occult. It's more of a fall festival kind of thing." Mrs. Cartwright fixed the audience with a stern eye. "The same goes for costumes, everyone. Nothing gross or offensive from a religious or ethnic viewpoint. It's possible to have fun and show good taste at the same time."

And to think that just a few minutes ago I actually liked this woman, PJ thought. "I don't suppose I'll have a weekend to work on this?" PJ asked, somehow guessing that the answer would be no.

"Halloween is on a Thursday this year. The class party will be Thursday afternoon. Please have the cupcakes here by noon. If you ask in the office, someone might be able to help you unload from your car, but don't count on it. Now, who can bring the napkins and paper cups?"


Excerpted from Fire Cracker by Shirley Kennett. Copyright © 2014 Shirley Kennett. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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